It’s strange to think of horror directors as happy people, but the smile on first time feature director Fede Alvarez’s face can be heard through the phone. The energy and warmth that he talks about his latest project – a long talked about and heavily buzzed re-imagining of Sam Raimi’s iconic, low budget, and somewhat controversial 1981 Evil Dead – is positively infectious. He’s a man both confident in his abilities as a writer and director, but also obviously overjoyed to be living out his dreams. Even in the middle of a gruelling multi-city tour previewing his wares, he seems energized by the prospect rather than exhausted.
He also seems to know that he’s a very unusual choice for the project, having only made extremely microbudget shorts in his native Uruguay before being handed they keys to one of the most anticipated retellings of a beloved film by the series creator himself. It’s a transition that Alvarez has made quite easily and deftly, delivering a film that has already had advance screening audiences talking and analysing for the past few weeks.
We called in to Alvarez to talk about making such a huge leap, his film’s reliance on practical effects and authenticity rather than CGI and fake sets, the film’s writing process, why the MPAA was actually helpful on a film some say is one of the goriest ever made, and why he’s always his own harshest critic.
This is a film that’s absolutely terrifying, but a huge part of it is getting strong work from your actors. How did you get such performances from these actors?
Fede Alvarez: Well, thank you! I mean, everything starts from the pages. Nothing will work if the script sucks (laughs), so we put a lot of love and care into it. We put a lot of faith and trust into our actors in general, but we also cared about giving them stories that didn’t necessarily relate directly to the supernatural story. We wanted them to have this journey that was not only plot driven, but character driven. That always helps.
On the shooting itself, I think a big part of my job was exposing them to real things all the time. That’s why the decision was also made to make everything really practical and not use CGI and all that. It wasn’t just because I loved horror movies that look real, but also because I knew that this way actors were going to be exposed to real things that they could see rather than what they would have to imagine going in later on.
We shot this film in a real forest, whereas some films the first instinct would be to just build it on a stage. I thought that was going to be a betrayal to the spirit of the original film. I felt that we had to be in the woods and spend long nights there, and everyone was freezing to death, but I think that’s how movies like this should be done. For the actors, these are real feelings. They aren’t faking it all the time. (laughs) When they are scared, sometimes I will surprise them with real jumps. Sometimes I kept them in the dark about some scenes and certain moments throughout the movie so we could have them reacting in a really truthful way. I was really pushing for them to have the real experience because I knew if they were having that it would translate into their performances.
You’re a pretty DIY guy and you come from a shorts background, and for your first feature film you’re doing a major remake of one of the most iconic horror films of all time. What’s it like making that jump and working with a budget that’s not only bigger than anything you’ve ever worked with, but also bigger than that of the original film that was kind of a DIY labour of love in its own right?
FA: Well, it’s never a problem to have a good budget. (laughs) That’s never going to be a problem. That’s always going to be a good thing. I mean, even for a horror movie this was a good budget, but even then we still had to be resourceful and come up with ideas to make the movie seem even bigger.
I don’t know… I’m a big fan of movies, but I’m an even bigger fan of making them myself. I fell in love with it when I was very young and I always loved to learn the craft. Every aspect of it; not just as a director. I was doing everything that was film related. I would do the music for my films in the past. I even played the piano on the soundtrack of this film in some parts. It’s something that I love and it applies to every, every aspect of filmmaking. Except acting. (laughs) That would be something I couldn’t compete at, but I could do the rest.
I think it was all quite helpful when it came down to make this movie, and also it just helps in general when the director knows a little bit of everything. When it came time to do the visual effects, that was a field I know. It really helped me a lot and it made things really easy. Sometimes people ask me what it’s like to come from a $200 short to a movie and they ask if it’s hard, and my answer is always the same. The hard part is to make a $300 alien invasion movie with no money and make it seem real. Then when you have a movie like this where you have all these resources, it’s always a pleasure. In Hollywood you have a chance to be surrounded by amazing actors and a great team. That was great.
And regarding the challenge of remaking a classic, I was such a fan of the original and of Sam Raimi’s movies in general that I think it was the reason Sam gave me the movie. Otherwise, he would have never given it to me. I know all that universe, and most my friends are all freaks for horror and things like that, so I know my audience. I know who I am making this film for on many levels. I owe it Sam to make me feel good about it. I knew I wasn’t re-writing anything. I wasn’t making a movie that was trying to take the place of another. I just wanted to make a new story. That’s why I decided to go with different characters. I decided to go with a different set-up. The set-up here is completely different. But we were very careful, and me and my friend and co-writer that I have been best friends with since we were kids, Rodo Sayagues, did a good job of bringing together the ideas of the original and fitting it in this new story without it feeling forced. There’s always pressure, but I always felt it was awesome to be making an Evil Dead movie and to be a part of this family and have the chance to even make a movie that’s called Evil Dead. I’m always thinking about the great and cool side to this, and the honour that comes with it, which is the scariest part of all that pressure.
Did you draw from any other inspirations to make this version of Evil Dead your own and how conscious were you at all times that you had to deliver an original film?
FA: Sam was really pushy with the fact that he wanted me to make my own film. Even with moments where I was trying to bring more elements in from the original film, he would be very insistent with that idea. He would be, like, “Fede, I want you to make your film. This has to be your film. You don’t want to rely on me for it to be enough.” He was really pushy in that respect. He wanted me to have my own film and it was great that he gave us all the freedom to do it. He never forced me to do something that I didn’t want or to put something that I didn’t want to or shoot something that I maybe didn’t believe in. These were the best producers you could ask for because they gave me all the freedom. He wanted this to be an author film. He wanted it to come from a writer/director who had the freedom to do whatever he wanted because that was the spirit of the original film. He wanted to make sure that it translated to this one.
As for the ideas, I think as a director it’s harder to do, but as a writer and every time you write something I think you take ideas from every good thing you’ve seen or experienced in the past. Usually every movie is a huge creation and a huge rip-off of a hundred other things just blended together in a way that you create something new. I think that if I was being a bit more precise, we took a whole bunch of stuff from The Exorcist, which is kind of the quintessential possession movie. It’s kind of the bible of those movies, you know? There’s a mythology from that movie that finds its way into every possession movie, so we took a lot from there.
I think The Omen was also a good reference for me and a good story in terms of showing how you make the audience believe in the supernatural. You have a character that doesn’t believe in anything and never in the occult, and at the end you have the guy ready to kill his son, and that journey follows them all the time, and it’s a great piece of storytelling. How do you make somebody believe in the supernatural when they don’t believe in anything.
On the technique side, I think that Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a great example of how to make a movie with practical techniques of the times. That was something I wanted to do in this film, and that movie had a lot of old school techniques, but they look amazing and they make the movie look timeless. Those kinds of movies don’t age at all. They’re still relevant and they’re still amazing because they were conscious of not using top of the line technology to make the film. That was something I wanted to do here for the same reason; to keep the movie as timeless as possible. That was a big part of the decision to not use CGI. Those were a few of the movies I think we took a lot of inspiration from, and, of course, from all of the Evil Dead movies.
Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are both producers here. Were you worried about trying to impress either of them or more the horror community in general?
FA: I would say neither. I would say myself. I’m pretty three dimensional with myself and my work, and I was putting the most pressure on myself to make sure I was doing the best work I can. I’m quite obsessive in my work as a writer and a director and with anything I do, so during the whole process I was always the toughest one to please on many levels. Even when the first draft was done they loved it and Sam loved it and they brought it to Bruce and he loved it, and I still thought it wasn’t 100% ready. It was good enough, and then we did a second draft and they loved that one, too, but I still thought it wasn’t good enough. (laughs) Even when we finished the movie and I finished the first cut of it and I hated it, but then I showed it to Sam Raimi and he loved it. (laughs) The hardest person to please was myself. That’s just the way I work, I guess. Every time I finish something I am really, really demanding with myself.
And because I’m a Sam Raimi fan and an Evil Dead fan it was even harder. I wouldn’t say I’m a horror fan overall because I don’t watch every horror movie out there, but I used to be, so I knew that at the end of the day if I was pleasing myself and I made a movie that I loved that people out there would love it. One of the best pieces of advice that Sam gave me was to make a movie that I wanted to see in theatres. “Don’t try to make the movie you think I want to see or that you think the audience wants to see. You have to make the movie that you want to go and see in a theatre. That’s the only way. You’re instincts are the only thing you’ll always have with you.” That was so right and so true. At the end of the day if you’re truthful to your feelings, your desires, and your tastes, you hope that there’s an audience out there that feels just like you. Every kind of art form is like that, I think. You have to do it for yourself. You have to think it’s cool. You can’t do it to please somebody else. That seems like inviting failure.
For the longest time Diablo Cody’s name was attached to the film as having a screenwriting credit and she was reported to have worked on the film, yet in the credits her name wasn’t listed. How much input, if any, did she have?
FA: She did, and she did a really great job in parts. When I finished my first draft of the screenplay with Rodo, we asked for an American writer to come in and just do a pass on the dialogue because we thought there was no way we could create realistic American dialogue. It’s not our first language. She’s a big Evil Dead fan, and that was great. So she did a polish on dialogue without changing the scenes or the characters or the plotting. In the end I think we actually ended up using very little of it, so the WGA has a jury where they kind of decide on that, and she didn’t get a final credit because we didn’t use enough of her draft overall.
A lot of the early reviews and reactions to the film have been hailing this as one of, if not THE, goriest mainstream movie of all time. Did you guys have any problems with the MPAA when it came time to show them the final cut of the film? Did you have to fight certain cuts to make sure the film stayed true to your vision of what it should be?
FA: Yeah, and it was hard, but ironically they were actually really helpful. Sometimes the MPAA can drive you really crazy by not telling you why the movie is getting a bad rating or a rating that you don’t want, and sometimes they’re very precise. In this case, they were very precise with us. They said there was this and this and this and this. I think they gave us about five notes on the first cut, and thank God it was nothing that we really had to get rid of. We were just asked to get rid of about five to ten frames in certain moments, and very honestly, I think they helped up to make a better movie because when they tell you that you can only show something for 25 frames, as a director working with my editor you want to make sure those are the best 25 frames you see. You want to make sure they are the best ones you have. They helped us to create an even sharper cut, in a way. I don’t think the movie suffered at all or had to be cut down. It’s still the same movie that we had before.
Since you guys shot on a really tight schedule and you were emphasizing realism through the effects and the shooting, without spoiling anything, what was the most difficult thing for you to shoot?
FA: That’s hard because a lot of things in this movie were so tough. I would probably say everything that happens in the cellar between the Natalie and Mia characters where they’re fighting and you see the cutting of the tongue that’s in the trailer. That was so tough for the actresses, and as a director you kind of have to convince everyone that the way you want to do it is the right way. That was one of those days where my idea of going 100% practical was falling apart a little bit because while we were shooting when we were shooting the tongue cut and we were puppeteering this fake tongue it looked embarrassing. (laughs) But in moments like that you just have to be courageous and just keep going because everyone’s trying to tell you “I told you we should have gone with the CG tongue.” (laughs) But you have to stay true to the original vision. Eventually we pulled it off and in the editing we found a way to make it end up looking great, but it was something that took a lot of effort and a lot of people doing their jobs really well to make those moments look real.